SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Blink, and you might have missed how the Americans positioned themselves to win this 44th Walker Cup.
A crucial half point.
A lunch of turbo-boosters.
A bounce-back mentality.
And before you knew it, the Americans reeled off six straight wins Saturday en route to their best singles performance since the new format was instituted in 1995. As a result, the U.S. took a commanding 8-4 lead over Team GB&I as it attempts to win the Walker Cup for the fourth time in the last five matches.
Game over? Well, recent Walker Cup history suggests as much – the last three teams that led after Day 1 have gone on to win.
But the tidal wave of momentum that just drowned Team GB&I could very well switch directions Sunday … or at least that’s what U.S. captain Jim Holtgrieve was telling his 10 players as darkness fell over National Golf Links.
“To me, the match is even,” Holtgrieve said. “It’s match play. This thing is not nearly over.”
It just may seem that way. The Americans, with eight different players contributing at least a half point, have jumped out to their biggest Day 1 lead since 1997.
“Eight to four is not an insurmountable lead,” GB&I captain Nigel Edwards said. “We’re good at foursomes. We’re good players. We’re good at singles. So game on tomorrow.”
Good news, because it could very easily turn into a Sunday snoozer at National. The Americans need only 5 1/2 of the remaining 14 points to reach the 13 1/2 needed to win back the cup.
It was a fascinating few hours Saturday, especially since GB&I appeared in great shape for much of the morning. It led all four foursomes matches at one point on the back nine, only to settle for a 2 1/2 to 1 1/2 lead heading into lunch.
The turning point came as the opening foursomes match reached 18. The U.S. duo of Cory Whitsett and Bobby Wyatt combined to make six bogeys in the alternate-shot format and never led, but they eked out a half point after GB&I’s Max Orrin rushed his 35-foot birdie putt 12 feet past, and Nathan Kimsey couldn’t make the comebacker.
“It feels like you’re stealing something,” Whitsett said afterward.
Despite trailing after the opening session for just the second time since 2003, the Americans were actually “pretty pleased” to be down by only a point heading into the afternoon.
“No one hit the panic button,” Michael Weaver said. “No one felt like we played too poorly.”
That much was clear as the Americans rushed out of the gates in the afternoon.
Bobby Wyatt was 2 down after six holes but turned it into a 2-up victory over Neil Raymond. Max Homa made eagle on the drivable second hole en route to smoking Max Orrin, 5 and 3. Weaver downed GB&I’s best player, U.S. Amateur winner Matt Fitzpatrick, with wins on Nos. 14, 15 and 17.
At one point, the U.S. led in seven of the eight singles matches. Even the lifeguards at Hampton Bay were hanging red flags.
“It was important to see some red,” Homa said. “Seeing things going the wrong way, it’s hard to pull it back sometimes. We wanted to set the tone early.”
“It’s a pretty sneaky thing,” Justin Thomas said of the momentum shifts. “It definitely doesn’t hurt looking up there and seeing all our guys get it done.”
Nothing epitomized the GB&I’s sour afternoon quite like Thomas’ match against Kimsey.
All square coming down 18, both players left their second shots on the par 5 in a similar spot left of the green. Kimsey played a brilliant pitch to 4 feet, while Thomas’ shot didn’t carry far enough and rolled all the way back to his feet.
Thomas’ fourth shot caught a piece of the hole but didn’t drop. And with a chance to secure a crucial full point for the visitors, Kimsey instead blocked his 4-footer and ended up halving the match.
“These players don’t become bad in one afternoon,” Edwards said. “They’ll be suitably prepared in the morning.”
“It’s just match play,” said Gavin Moynihan, the only GB&I player to win his singles match. “We’re all good players. Anyone can beat anyone on a given day.”
To make this Walker Cup competitive, Team GB&I better hope that theory applies Sunday.